Have you ever had an argument with someone that had no teeth? Not the someone, but the argument itself. They believe something and either you’re neutral about it or you disagree with them. Either way, you seek to understand by asking questions and challenging their assumptions and generalizations. Except, they don’t answer your questions and they are not up for the challenges you throw their way. Instead, they use circular arguments or pile on more assumptions and generalizations.
This is my professional life in a nutshell. In my attempt to understand the thoughts and feelings of everyday people about heightened culture and social challenges, I learn very quickly just how uninformed we are. We have opinions but struggle mightily to explain our rationale behind them in any defensible way. We just believe what we believe.
A colleague of mine recently asked me if I felt good about having these kinds of discussions. I could tell by the tone in his voice that he was coming from a place of slight annoyance though I was not sure why. So I asked.
“At some point, you can be right and still be wrong.” This was his response. He went on to say that no matter my intention, sincerity, or compassion, the very work that I do can hinder progress in a world that needs a major makeover.
His words are not without some truth. After all, when you help people understand how they feel and how they really feel, simultaneous outcomes can come to bear.
- Some people may lose confidence in their original stance which in turn can lead them to back down and pivot from being an ally to an onlooker.
- Already existing steps taken towards progress can be halted as people rethink their stance.
- Some people who already disagreed with the stance may become more emboldened and vocal in their opposition to it.
Culture facilitation comes with it the power to influence people in a way that is hard to put into words. Your neutrality means that people will share things with a full understanding and trust that you’re not there to take sides but instead to secure an informed understanding of the environment from the lens of the people who inhabit it. So share they do. As they talk, you will hear things that don’t pass the logic test and yet the comfort and certainty in their voices signal a degree of confidence. When you begin to challenge their words in a neutral, respectful, and non-patronizing manner, they can begin to rethink whatever it is they so confidently held to be true.
This is power that cannot be taken for granted. So when my colleague shared his concern, I understood where he was coming from. The thing is, I have thought about this very thing time and time again. It leads me to ask the question, is neutrality an enemy of progress?
To fully delve into this question, it becomes important to fully frame what kind of neutrality I am talking about.
- If I was a witness to someone being sexually harassed or assaulted, called the ‘N' word, or bullied, I could decide to be neutral and do nothing. This is not the type of neutrality I am talking about. I don’t refer to bystanders as neutral parties, I refer to them as cowards and enablers.
- If someone has an opinion about something and decides to broach it with me to have an intellectual debate, I could choose to remain neutral and not share my views. This is not the type of neutrality I am talking about. I don’t wish to treat every interaction I ever have as a micro facilitation.
- If someone, individually or within a larger group, has an opinion about something that influences how they see or interrelates with the broader culture, I could choose to remain neutral as a means of eliciting authentic trust so that I can better understand where they are coming from. This is the type of neutrality I am talking about. I want to help individuals and groups understand their biases, generalizations, and emotions so that they may be more informed about themselves and their influences on the culture.
Is this kind of neutrality good or bad? Does it halt progress? I’d like to answer this question with some questions.
Are we progressing now?
Are we listening to each other now?
Of course, these are rhetorical questions that need only the honesty and vision of an everyday person to answer with an emphatic no. So why aren’t we progressing? Because we’re not listening to each other. We hear with our ears and we listen with our head and our heart. It’s easy to hear the thoughts and feelings of others but that is not the same as listening.
In todays climate, the words of others create triggers that ensure that our head rarely enters the atmosphere. In some cases, words aren’t even necessary. We see their gender, their skin color, or their political persuasion, and we shut down or create filters before they’ve spoken at all.
In all of this, neutrality is only the enemy of progress if we see progress through our singular lens and don’t care to listen to others. In fact, there are some who believe that the lenses of others should be censored or muted. This belief is racegenderpoliticalparty agnostic.
Going beyond my profession, there are people trying to have discussions that bring people of different beliefs and backgrounds together--this so that they may explore the discontent and find ways to patch it. Is their intent harmful? The answer to this question depends on your desired end-state.
If we seek healing and we are honest about our biases, filters and blind rage, we will find value, even comfort, in people who can help us grow and then heal. If we seek one-way, transactional change that requires edicts and obedience, neutrality is the enemy of progress. To the latter, we may just need to rethink how we define progress.